Every year in November, thousands of spectators and contestants converge in Taunggyi, the capital city of Shan State, Myanmar to celebrate the Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights. Informally known as the “Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival”, it is always a spectacular affair combining cultural tradition, communal competition, artistic beauty and danger.
The annual fire balloon festival marks the end of the monsoon and also Buddhist lent. As part of the second festival of lights, it celebrates the triumph of wisdom over the darkness of ignorance. Indeed, the light show above the Awayyar Balloon Field in Taunggyi is an incredible display of fireworks.
The festival takes place in a carnival atmosphere with an assortment of wide ranging attractions such as games, carnival rides, loud music and food. Indeed, the event is extremely crowded. I would estimate there were at least 75,000 people at the festival on both nights that I attended.
Transportation to Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival
If you are lucky you can get good accommodations in Taunggyi near the Awayyar Balloon Field – the focal point of the festival. However, it can get expensive because hotel proprietors are reputed to raise prices by up to 50% during the festival.
Additionally, take note that the festival is several kilometers outside downtown Taunggyi – too far to walk. Therefore, if you stay downtown, you will need transport. If so, get in line because there will be a long wait, especially if you are going by car or truck.
By far, the most efficient method of transportation is a small 110cc motorbike. This was what I used and it was very effective.
Also to avoid the crowds and price gouging, I stayed in Nyaung Shwe which (under normal conditions) is about a 45 minute drive to the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival. However, these conditions are far from normal and it took me about about an hour and a half to get to the balloon field.
But getting back is the hard part! Fortunately, with the help of a friendly local, I managed to dodge the traffic jam and made it home in about two hours. The second night was a bit easier because I knew the way already.
Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival Contestants
The Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival contestants travel from around the country to compete. Additionally, the teams travel as an entourage including the balloon technicians, musicians, dancers and sometimes corporate sponsors. It is certainly a team effort to get the balloon aloft from both a technical and spiritual perspective.
Setting Aloft the Taunggyi Fire Balloons
The balloons are really giant Chinese paper lanterns up to 15 meters in height. Additionally, they carry a large cargo of fireworks which is fixed in place of the basket on a pallet.
Indeed, setting alight the fireworks is a precarious process and there have been recent fatalities from premature explosions. Fortunately, on both nights I attended, there were no accidents at the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival in 2019 (to the best of my knowledge).
The next step is potentially dangerous because if the fireworks prematurely explode it can be fatal to contestants and bystanders. Perhaps I was a bit complacent, but there were no mishaps while I was there. I spent the entire time on the balloon field watching the crews work and enjoying the festivities.
Although none of the balloons I witnessed exploded on the ground, on one occasion the fireworks went off while it was still low in the air. This was actually quite exciting and made great content for a dramatic HD video of the event.
However, most of the balloons are flawlessly crafted and the firework show does not begin until they are well above the ground.
Elegance of Taunggyi Fire Balloons
Big fireworks displays and high risk bring the international appeal to the Taunggyi Fire balloon Festival. However, not all of the balloons carry fireworks. Indeed, there is a more elegant type of balloon which is also featured at the festival. This balloon is decorated with candles and carries huge elaborate trailing displays.
When the balloon is still on the ground, it is hard to make sense of the display. However, once it is aloft then it all makes better sense.